Moving forward and giving back
"I am a survivor. I am not a hero — I am a survivor."
Those words give tremendous insight into the character of Vietnam veteran George McCart. He came home from the Vietnam War with severe wounds, but he knows that many others weren't as lucky.
"The heroes are the ones who didn't make it back," he said solemnly.
In addition, McCart holds other invisible wounds from the ordeal of his time in Vietnam.
"You are a different person, and it's not something you can express very easily."
Like many veterans from this time era, McCart finds it difficult to talk about his life during the war. But he also feels that it is important to share insights that all Americans can learn from.
McCart was born in Eugene, Oregon, and graduated from Crook County High School in 1964. He grew up with four sisters in the Paulina country on a ranch. He has always been a hard-working man, and he began working when he was 13 years old.
As a young man, he loved singing, and choir became his favorite class in school. He would sing while on the ranch, and this would become important later in his adult life.
McCart went into the United States Navy in 1965 and found himself in Boot Camp, then off to Vietnam.
McCart's first ship was the USS Pickaway 222, and he was able to experience many new places the first year, including the Philippines, Guam and Japan. His ending destination was Da Nang, Republic of Vietnam, where he worked in a small craft repair facility in 1966.
"We got to take the engines that were blown up and rebuild them," McCart said. "I got two liberties off-base, and during my second liberty, I got shot."
With this injury, McCart received his first Purple Heart, and he finished his first year before receiving some R and R. He went back to Da Nang for a second tour. He was transferred to Cua Viet Base as a machinist to repair engines.
While working on diesel engines, there was a series of rocket attacks. He indicated he could set his clock by the rocket attacks: 6 a.m., 11 a.m., 4 p.m. and 11 p.m.
"Then they changed the time and they gave us an all-clear," McCart recalled. "When they gave us an all-clear, they needed someone to go out and fix the boats that had been damaged — with pumps, hoses and patches."
McCart was one of the last guys in the bunker, so he was the first guy out. It was April 24, 1968, 92 days after he had come back for his second tour.
McCart ran toward the craft with complete disregard for his own safety. He was in an exposed area, but he was determined to take action to repair the damages. Then a second artillery barrage commenced with a round landing close by.
In the explosion, McCart lost both of his legs. He was blown up against a medical bunker— and the medics were able to get to him quickly. He would later receive a Navy Commendation Medal for the bravery he demonstrated on that fateful day.
McCart recalled that there were many blank spaces in the coming days and months. He was flown to Japan, then Guam and finally California.
"I'm missing some big chunks in there," he explained.
He was in the Portland Veterans hospital for one year, and then transferred to Wadsworth General in Los Angeles, California. He spent a year there, trying learn to walk on prosthetic legs.
"At the end of the year, I could walk 40 feet and I would have to stop and rest. So I decided it wasn't worth it, and gave them back the legs."
Back to Civilian Life
When McCart was in the Portland VA Medical Center, an anonymous person gave him a Disabled American Veterans lifetime membership.
"That was where I got my first introduction to the DAV," he explained. "I started getting their magazines and reading them."
After leaving Wadsworth General in California, McCart attended school at Santa Monica College for three years and received his degree in construction technology. He was then admitted to University of Oregon for a five-year degree in Architecture.
In 1977, he returned to his roots in Crook County. At that time, he became aware that being a Vietnam veteran reduced his chances of being hired to zero.
"When I got my degree in architecture, I put out 30-40 letters or resumes, applying for jobs as an apprentice with architecture firms all over the U.S.," McCart recalled. "None of them even responded."
He received some advice from his brother that he could get a job back home — that the stigma of being a veteran wouldn't keep him from being hired. After returning to Prineville, he connected with Charlie Moore and several other builders. He made up some cards, visited them, and began getting jobs. He started his business,and has been going strong for 42 years.
Giving back to disabled veterans
McCart started attending meetings for DAV Chapter 14 in Bend 10 years ago. He kept attending meetings and was eventually elected to the State Executive Committee. He attended conventions and conferences all over Oregon. This led to an assignment for an office at the state level for disabled Americans.
He pointed out, "I was on the Oregon Disabilities Commission for 12 years, I was on the Building Code Structures Board for 12 years, and I was on the Building Code Structures Code Committee for another 19."
His involvement in these state offices and committees spanned the governorships of Barbara Roberts and John Kitzhaber. He received the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998 from Kitzhaber.
Most recently, McCart has served as the Disabled American Veterans State Department judge advocate. He has served in this capacity for two years, reading the constitution and bylaws, signing off and forwarding them to the national headquarters for the approval of the national judge advocate.
McCart hasn't hesitated to serve his fellow veterans and those who live with disabilities, in addition to being active in his local community. He was instrumental in advocating for the Americans With Disabilities Act, which was enacted in 1990.
"Access (into buildings) has gotten tremendously better, and there are very few places I can't go any more," said McCart. "In terms of accessibility for people in wheelchairs, walkers or crutches or whatever — you can go almost anywhere."
McCart has designed more than 3,000 homes in Crook County and Central Oregon. They stand as a testament to his craft and his outstanding skill. He can be found three days per week working out at the Prineville Athletic Club. He loves to hunt when he gets the opportunity, and he still sings in his church. McCart is also a big fan of classic cars.
With a heavy sigh, McCart takes a deep breath and gets a faraway look in his eyes. He begins to share some things that he felt were really important for people to realize about Vietnam.
"When you leave home and go to places that are not much fun, it changes you when you come back," recalled McCart. "You look at life differently, and you react differently to things."
He added that he still doesn't sit in dark rooms, and he always sits with his back to the wall.
"Everyone loses something out there. It changes you — and for some people it's a lot," added McCart. "Everyone is affected differently."
Details of service
United States Navy
Vietnam War 1965-1968
Locations of service: DaNang Vietnam
Unit of Service: USS Pickaway (APA 222)
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